The puzzle of Hampton Court maze

Our oldest outdoor brain-teaser is not about to be uprooted, reckons Anna McKane
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The Independent Travel
Some of the yews are sick and some are too thin, it is very tatty, but Hampton Court maze lives on. Reports of its imminent death have been grossly exaggerated. It is not about to be uprooted.

Many anxious visitors rang up earlier in the year after press reports that the maze was to be replaced and were reassured that, although something may well be done to it at some stage, nothing will happen for a while. The 750,000 visitors who wander around it each year can still see one another through the sparse hedging, and can still shake their heads at the patches of railings and wooden fences that have been installed to prevent lost and frustrated tourists from forcing their way through to the centre.

And many visitors, when they do at last reach the centre, will still experience a tinge of disappointment at arriving in a dusty rectangle to view nothing more exciting than a couple of trees.

But when you are looking after the oldest maze in the country, designed in 1689 for the amusement of a few dozen people - and now probably the most visited maze anywhere in the world - it is not easy to work out what to do with it.

As Terry Gough, Hampton Court's garden manager, explains, its caretakers are not going to rush into anything. Historians are studying the archives at Hampton Court to discover everything they can about the original maze, and gardening experts will then decide what the options are.

They range, as Mr Gough says, from simply doing nothing, to digging the whole thing up and starting again. In between those two extremes are other, less drastic, options, such as gradually replanting parts of the hedge. A decision is likely in the autumn.

The design is the original 1689 one, but the hedges, originally hornbeam, and filled in over the centuries with holly, berberis and privet, were completely replanted in the Sixties with yew. It now seems they were planted too close together, and this, coupled with the huge increase in visitors over the years, has left the maze straggly and bare in places. And most people agree that the Tarmac paths are not at all in keeping with the garden.

What is certain is that the design will remain the same, which may prevent the restorers doing anything particularly exciting in the middle of the maze. The modern but period-style maze at Leeds Castle, for example, has an underground grotto and a mound in the centre, so that those who have arrived can see out over the maze and sneer at or give advice to others who are still lost.

This option may not be possible at Hampton Court, but there may be others. Originally the maze had three compartments in the centre, which is one possibility that sounds a little more interesting.

Mr Gough says the whole of the Wilderness, which surrounds the existing maze, itself used to be a maze, with 18ft-high hedges and small outdoor "rooms". That is not an option now, as the area is a mass of daffodils and narcissus in the spring, and this feature, planted in the 19th century, is so popular with visitors that it cannot be substantially changed.

Just a couple of generations ago, the Hampton Court maze was probably the only one anyone had ever heard of. But mazes have become so popular since then that they are springing up all over the country, not just in stately homes and gardens, but in smaller, private gardens as well.

This makes the task even harder for the Hampton Court team, who have the headache of trying to make their maze as smart and exciting as the modern ones, but at the same time doing their best to preserve what is, in effect, a living antique.

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